It's almost not fair for me to write a review of this novel, since it won't go into wide release for nearly two more months.
With that in mind, I'm not going to do my typical thing, which is to try -- with varying degrees of success -- to dig into the meat of the book. I can't do that without getting into spoilers, and I have no intention of doing that; 'twouldn't be fair to those who haven't the opportunity to read the book yet, sai; not fair at all.
So, instead, I'll just give some brief general impressions first, which will tell you whether or not I feel like you should be excited to read the book. After that, I'll issue a warning that there be mild spoilers ahead, and I'll dive into a general discussion of the novel's interesting structure.
|artwork by Jae Lee|
First things first: if it bums you out that I've read the novel and you have to wait until April 24th, I've got a solution. Head over to Grant's website and buy yoself a copy. The artist edition is still available; sure, it's $75, but it's signed by artist Jae Lee. PLUS, that way you don't have to wait until April, and the quality of the physical book itself is simply awesome. If you can justify spending the money, you really ought to spend it ... just sayin'.
After all, returning to the Mid-World well after a nearly ten-year absence might not have turned out to be a good thing, especially if it did anything to harm what some (though certainly not all) readers felt to be a note-perfect ending. I'm one of those readers who felt the ending was perfect, and while the concept of The Wind Through the Keyhole promised a midquel (set between Books IV and V) rather than a sequel, I felt there was still room for apprehension.
I was never worried about it, though ... and as it turns out, my Alfred E. Neuman-ish impulses were dead on the money: The Wind Through the Keyhole not only does absolutely NOTHING to tarnish the legacy of a great series of novels, it actually strengthens it.
One thing I would say is that from the very first paragraph, it feels 100% as though this story fits -- tonally, stylistically, and plotwise -- with the rest of the series. If King had returned to the series after an eight-year absence, and had not quite been able to make Roland and Eddie and Susannah and Jake sound the same as they had last sounded ... well, it would have been understandable, but also regrettable. This does not happen; instead, it feels as if we are reading an eighth novel in the series which was written years ago and, for whatever reason, is only now seeing the light of day. In other words, The Wind Through the Keyhole reads not like someone trying to write a Dark Tower novel ... but like someone writing a Dark Tower novel.
That might seem like a minor distinction.
It's a major one, and it's really the only one that matters. For anyone who considers themselves to be a Dark Tower fan, that's probably the only thing you need to hear in terms of a review. So, there you have it: it's a Dark Tower novel, and it feels like one; therefore, if you are a Dark Tower fan, you would be a fool not to read it.
I promised no spoilers -- not even very minor ones -- without a warning, so consider yourself warned. I won't discuss anything terribly specific about the plot, but I do want to touch on a few general matters involving structure, tone, etc., and to do so I need to at least say something about what's going on here storywise. Some folks might consider even that much info to be spoilery, so I'd rather err on the side of caution and just issue the warning here. So, if you're determined to know as little as possible, I'd advise you to turn back now.
As is my wont, I shall provide an amusing photo as a transitional device:
Heh. That cracks me up, boy ... even more than this one does:
Yes, the Internet can be a morally bankrupt place sometimes ... but never let it be said that it don't know how to party.
Alright, still with me?
Here's the biggest spoiler about The Dark Tower: The Wind Through the Keyhole: there really are no spoilers ... because in a way, nothing happens. This is no surprise; as a midquel -- I hate that word, but it fits -- the story can have no genuine impact on the overall story of The Dark Tower. We know where our characters were at the end of Wizard and Glass, and we know where they are at the beginning of Wolves of the Calla ... and it's more or less the same place. (However, this review at FEARnet by Kevin Quigley has some extremely perceptive things to say about how The Wind Through the Keyhole provides a better transition for Jake from youth into young manhood and gunslingerhood ... gunslingerdom ... gunslingery ... whatever.)
Any prospective Book IV-and-a-half can't do much in the way of altering the series' storyline, and it would have been a mistake for King to even try. King knows this, and doesn't try. Instead, he crafts a tale that is very much a meditation on the art of storytelling itself, and uses that conceit to help illuminate certain aspects of Roland's personality. As such, The Wind Through the Keyhole also serves to provide an even better transition from the Roland of the first three novels to the slightly more touchy-feely Roland of the final three novels. That transition was already there in Wizard and Glass, but The Wind Through the Keyhole gives us a bit more time to live with that in-transition version of Roland. This isn't mandatory ... but it seems appropriate, and I'll be curious to read the entire series front to back at some point, with this new novel slotted between Books IV and V to see how it feels in that context.
The one drawback I can see is that, read that way, the novel may decelerate the forward momentum of the series a bit. Wizard and Glass already does puts the brakes on quite a bit, replacing forward momentum with pastwards-oriented revelation; it might seem even more of a distraction for The Wind Through the Keyhole to provide literally NO forward progress in the overall story. However, it might also make Wolves of the Calla seem exciting in comparison, which could theoretically be an aid in some ways.
No matter. That's a topic for another day.
This day, let's talk a bit about the structure of the novel. First off: page count. It's slightly more than 330 pages, so it's a fairly brief book. Its closest relation within the Dark Tower series is Wizard and Glass, which is two stories: one the tale of Roland and crew journeying a bit further along their path to the Tower, and the other the tale of his tragic youth that Roland tells them along the way.
Here, we get three stories: one involves Roland and crew taking shelter from a vicious storm; one is a tale he tells them about a mission he and fellow gunslinger Jamie DeCurry were sent on as young gunslingers; and one is the tale of a young boy who goes on a magical quest to save his mother from an abusive stepfather (as Kevin Quigley points out in that review from FEARnet, this is essentially a Mid-World fairy tale).
You might be thinking, "hmm ... a collection of Mid-World short stories; interesting." But it's more complicated than that. As Roland himself describes it, these stories take the form of nesting dolls, one inside the other inside the other: while sheltering from the storm, Roland tells his ka-tet the skin-man story, and it is within that tale itself that a younger Roland tells a traumatized young boy the tale of Tim, a brave and persistent lad who goes on a quest.
These tales inform each other in somewhat unexpected ways. The central tale, "The Wind Through the Keyhole," is perhaps the most significant one in some ways. It is the length of a short novel, and on its own stands as what I might consider to be King's strongest-ever tale of pure fantasy. It's got echoes of both The Talisman and The Eyes of the Dragon, but for my money, it's better than both of those put together: it strikes all the right notes of balance between a fantastical tone and King's own more realistic tone, and also introduces a great character in Tim Ross. This is deeply good stuff, and it opens the possibility to Mid-World tales which do not necessarily involve Roland, gunslingers, or the Dark Tower itself. (Side-note: it could also make for an exceptional movie, which need not involve the larger Dark Tower mythos in any way. Just sayin'. I nominate Guillermo del Toro for the job, and if he ain't willin', somebody get me Alfonso Cuaron, stat!)
Almost as important is "The Skin-Man," a two-part story (it has "The Wind Through the Keyhole" nestled between the two) about Roland and Jamie hunting a werewolf-like "skin-man" that has been terrorizing one of the lands near Gilead. This takes place not terribly long after the incident (from Wizard and Glass) in which Roland mistakenly kills his mother, and the wounds of that event are very much the emotional backbone of the story. There is a good amount of bloody horror in this tale, and -- as Kevin Quigley beat me to pointing out! -- there are fun echoes of Cycle of the Werewolf, Desperation, and even The Little Sisters of Eluria (a story that sometimes gets left out of discussions involving The Dark Tower series, but shouldn't). The two parts taken as one are novella length, and it is a blast to read King writing another tale of young Roland the gunslinger. He introduces several good characters, including a badass Amazon-esque nun named Everlynne whom I would desperately like to see show up again at some point; she's wonderful.
If "The Wind Through the Keyhole" (the story specifically, as opposed to the novel generally) opens up the possibility of an expanded Mid-World universe of storytelling, "The Skin-Man" reaffirms -- and, perhaps, encourages (if only ever-so-slightly) -- my hope that at some point in time, King will write the definitive version of what transpires in Gilead to lead to its fall. Yes, yes, I know: the comic books have answered those questions.
Except ... they haven't. Not satisfactorily, at least (as far as this reader is concerned) ... and if I'm not mistaken, this novel blatantly contradicts -- and, therefore, renders, irrelevant -- at least one event from those comics. I can't be sure of that without a careful rereading of both the novel and of the comics, so this, too, must be a topic for another day. Regardless, "The Skin-Man" does prove that King still has room to tell any number of stories involving young Roland Deschain and his exploits as a gunslinger, both in Gilead itself and (potentially) wandering away from its ruin. Will we ever get to read such tales? Well ... here's hoping. Boy, here's REALLY hoping...
That leaves us with the wraparound story: Roland, Eddie, Susannah, Jake, and Oy taking shelter from a devastatingly violent wintry storm called a "starkblast." (King, who apparently discovered George R.R. Martin's A Song of Fire and Ice series recently, may be tipping his hat to the Stark family of those novels here; winter is coming, indeed ... and it's coming really fast, so get inside and lock them doors.) In some ways, this is the least interesting of the stories, simply because we know what happens: i.e., everyone survives, and they proceed toward Calla Bryn Sturgis. Duh.
In another way, though, this is the most satisfying of the tales, for the simple reason that it returns our ka-tet to the state in which many Tower fans enjoyed them the most: all together, on the road, with a far-flung destination in mind and no idea of how long it might take to get there. It's nice to have Jake and Eddie and Oy alive again; it's nice for Susannah to get flustered and for Detta Walker to pop out of her and start cussin' up a storm. For anyone who has read the series, those characters are vital; they are important, and it's nice to see them again. They sound just the same as they always sounded, and if this is the last peek at them we ever get, well, it's a satisfying one, which leaves them as we loved them best.
That idea is reinforced by the "nesting-doll" stories within it, which have their own complementary notions about the restorative and transformational power of storytelling. As (again) Quigley points out in his review, this is a theme that becomes very pronounced starting with Wolves of the Calla, so, in that sense, The Wind Through the Keyhole serves a very useful function for the overall series.
There is plenty more to discuss with this fine novel, but for now, I think I've said enough.
I'll come back to it when the mass-market edition hits in late April, and get a bit more in-depth. Until then, just remember: if you go to Taco Bell and ask for a gunslinger burrito, they won't know what the hell you're talking about.